Minutes after I finished speaking at a conference in Beijing this summer, a group of students stopped me in the hallway. In the midst of my first visit as the President of Marietta College to Beijing and our partner institution, the University of International Relations, I hoped I hadn't committed some sort of cultural faux pas.
I was relieved and encouraged to find that the reason the students wanted to talk to me was to express their genuine interest in my topic -- creativity in the classroom -- and their desire to have more of this in their own classrooms.
I'm not suggesting that our colleagues in China don't provide rigorous or enlightening educational offerings. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, as American colleges welcome more students from China to campuses across the US it becomes clear how bright and how serious they are about their education.
And in the process of developing a strong relationship with our international students and UIR administrators, it has become evident that our Chinese partners want to incorporate more of an American-style liberal arts approach to education. While I find this reassuring, I also hope others in American higher education share my excitement.
Many scholars have written about the benefits of a liberal arts education and the appeal of our graduates to companies looking to hire employees who think strategically. As I listened to the representatives from the Beijing business community who spoke at our symposium, it became clear that their concerns about college graduates and their preparation for a career were similar to those we hear from US employers. I may be predisposed in this direction, but their pleas for communication skills, analytical ability, and even a stronger moral compass certainly sounded to me like a call for the core strengths of a liberal arts education.
And this brings me back to the students from China who spoke to me in the hall at UIR about their pursuit of an educational setting open to student creativity.
There is surely no end to creativity and there is no limit to what a creative person might devise. Though I can't guarantee that any one of these creative minds will make the next great discovery in the coming four years, I certainly wouldn't rule it out. What we should expect is for these eager students to stretch themselves and use the creativity they yearn to unleash in the classroom, laboratory and on the performance stage.
If they become accustomed to that, they will surely make an impact in their chosen fields, in today's society and well into their lives after graduation.
The students who approached me were clearly frustrated and yearning for the chance to let their creativity run wild, but they reminded me that their country's leadership has heretofore been wary, to put it mildly, of unfettered creativity among its citizenry. Theirs was a touching plea, and, hoping to offer encouragement, I cited the talks we had just heard touting new green power initiatives in China. I assured them that the rapid process of industrialization they were witnessing could not continue for long without an influx of creativity and innovation, and I assured them that their contributions would eventually be welcomed. I hope I am correct, for their sake and ours.
This begs the question: Where will they direct all of this creativity?
The newest cohort of Chinese students studying in American colleges and universities have either declared their majors, have an idea of what their majors will be or are completely undecided thus far. All of these are perfectly reasonable at this stage and, from my own experience as an academic advisor for 28 years, I'm convinced that approximately half of my advisees changed their plans for a major after arriving at college.
There's certainly no reason to sound the alarm over that seemingly high percentage, because there is a valid reason for so many students to change their minds after beginning their higher education. Indeed, this is a triumph of our system. Within a creative system like the typical liberal arts curriculum, one would hope that at least some students would experience a significant change in plans. It's far better to risk some scrambling due to a switch in majors than to miss a new discipline that leads one to his/her true calling.
When prospective students come to our campus in Ohio, I tell them about the many Marietta alumni I have met who have experienced major changes in their professional lives. Their career paths fall in line with what I learned during a recent meeting of Ohio college presidents -- that some 60 percent of college graduates are, within five years after graduation, working in a field different from their college majors.
So, at this stage of their lives, our students, all of them, would be well advised to direct their creativity first and foremost to their own education and pursuit of knowledge. I firmly believe that, by applying their ingenuity to the pursuit of a broad-based education, students prepare themselves for success and for whatever surprises lie ahead. That is a good strategy for a career, and it is a sure path to a fulfilling life.